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Stable the High Horse
God has shown me that he doesn’t think anyone is unclean or unfit.
—Acts 10:28 (cev)
Molokai, a ruby on the pearl necklace of the Hawaiian Islands. Tourists travel to Molokai for its quiet charm, gentle breezes, and soft surf. But Father Damien came for a different reason. He came to help people die.
He came to Molokai because leprosy came here first. No one knows exactly how the disease reached Hawaii. The first documented case was dated around 1840. But while no one can trace the source of the disease, no one can deny its results. Disfigurement, decay, and panic.
The government responded with a civil version of Old Testament segregation. They deposited the diseased on a triangular thrust of land called Kalaupapa. Surrounded on three sides by water and on the fourth by the highest sea wall in the world, it was a natural prison.
Hard to get to. Harder still to get away from.
The lepers lived a discarded existence in shanties with minimal food. Ships would draw close to shore, and sailors would dump supplies into the water, hoping the crates would float toward land. Society sent the lepers a clear message: you aren’t valuable anymore.
But Father Damien’s message was different. He’d already served in the islands for a decade when, in 1873, at the age of thirty-three, he wrote his provincial and offered, “I want to sacrifice myself for the poor lepers.”
He immersed himself into their world, dressing sores, hugging children, burying the dead. His choir members sang through rags, and congregants received communion with stumped hands. Because they mattered to God, they mattered to him. When he referred to his congregation, he didn’t say “my brothers and sisters” but “we lepers.” He became one of them. Literally.
Somewhere along the way, through a touch of kindness or in the sharing of a communion wafer, the disease passed from member to priest. Damien became a leper. And on April 15, 1889, four days shy of Good Friday, he died.
We’ve learned to treat leprosy. We don’t quarantine people anymore. We’ve done away with such settlements. But have we done away with the attitude? Do we still see some people as inferior?
We did on our elementary school playground. All the boys in Mrs. Amburgy’s first-grade class bonded together to express our male superiority. We met daily at recess and, with arms interlocked, marched around the playground, shouting, “Boys are better than girls! Boys are better than girls!” Frankly, I didn’t agree, but I enjoyed the fraternity. The girls, in response, formed their own club. They paraded around the school, announcing their disdain for boys. We were a happy campus.
People are prone to pecking orders. We love the high horse. The boy over the girl or girl over boy. The affluent over the destitute. The educated over the dropout. The old timer over the newcomer. The Jew over the Gentile.
An impassable gulf yawned between Jews and Gentiles in the days of the early church. A Jew could not drink milk drawn by Gentiles or eat their food. Jews could not aid a Gentile mother in her hour of need. Jewish physicians could not attend to non-Jewish patients.
No Jew would have anything to do with a Gentile. They were unclean.
Unless that Jew, of course, was Jesus. Suspicions of a new order began to surface because of his curious conversation with the Canaanite woman. Her daughter was dying, and her prayer was urgent. Yet her ancestry was Gentile. “I was sent only to help God’s lost sheep—the people of Israel,” Jesus told her. “That’s true, Lord,” she replied, “but even dogs are allowed to eat the scraps that fall beneath their masters’ table” (Matt. 15:24, 27 nlt).
Jesus healed the woman’s daughter and made his position clear. He was more concerned about bringing everyone in than shutting certain people out.
This was the tension Peter felt. His culture said, “Keep your distance from Gentiles.” His Christ said, “Build bridges to Gentiles.” And Peter had to make a choice. An encounter with
Cornelius forced his decision.
Cornelius was an officer in the Roman army. Both Gentile and bad guy. (Think British redcoat in eighteenth-century Boston.) He ate the wrong food, hung with the wrong crowd, and swore allegiance to Caesar. He didn’t quote the Torah or descend from Abraham. Toga on his body and ham in his freezer. No yarmulke on his head or beard on his face. Hardly deacon material. Uncircumcised, unkosher, unclean. Look at him.
Yet look at him again. Closely. He helped needy people and sympathized with Jewish ethics. He was kind and devout. “One who feared God with all his household, who gave alms generously to the people, and prayed to God always” (Acts 10:2). Cornelius was even on a first-name basis with an angel. The angel told him to get in touch with Peter, who was staying at a friend’s house thirty miles away in the seaside town of Joppa. Cornelius sent three men to find him.
Peter, meanwhile, was doing his best to pray with a growling stomach. “He became very hungry and wanted to eat; but while they made ready, he fell into a trance and saw heaven opened and an object like a great sheet bound at the four corners, descending to him and let down to the earth. In it were all kinds of four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air. And a voice came to him, ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat’” (vv. 10–13).
The sheet contained enough unkosher food to uncurl the payos of any Hasidic Jew. Peter absolutely and resolutely refused. “Not so, Lord! For I have never eaten anything common or unclean” (v. 14).
But God wasn’t kidding about this. He three-peated the vision, leaving poor Peter in a quandary. Peter was pondering the pigs in the blanket when he heard a knock at the door. At the sound of the knock, he heard the call of God’s Spirit in his heart. “Behold, three men are seeking you. Arise therefore, go down and go with them, doubting nothing; for I have sent them” (vv. 19–20).
“Doubting nothing” can also be translated “make no distinction” or “indulge in no prejudice” or “discard all partiality.” This was a huge moment for Peter.
Much to his credit, Peter invited the messengers to spend the night and headed out the next morning to meet Cornelius. When Peter arrived, Cornelius fell at his feet. Peter insisted he stand up and then confessed how difficult this decision had been. “You know that we Jews are not allowed to have anything to do with other people. But God has shown me that he doesn’t think anyone is unclean or unfit” (v. 28 cev).
Peter told Cornelius about Jesus and the gospel, and before Peter could issue an invitation, the presence of the Spirit was among them, and they were replicating Pentecost—speaking in tongues and glorifying God. Peter offered to baptize Cornelius and his friends. They accepted. They offered him a bed. Peter accepted. By the end of the visit, he was making his own ham sandwiches.
And us? We are still pondering verse 28: “God has shown me that he doesn’t think anyone is unclean or unfit.”
Life is so much easier without this command. As long as we can call people common or unfit, we can plant them on Kalaupapa and go our separate ways. Labels relieve us of responsibility. Pigeonholing permits us to wash our hands and leave.
“Oh, I know John. He is an alcoholic.” (Translation: “Why can’t he control himself?”)
“The new boss is a liberal Democrat.” (Translation: “Can’t he see how misguided he is?”)
“Oh, I know her. She’s divorced.” (Translation: “She has a lot of baggage.”)
Categorizing others creates distance and gives us a convenient exit strategy for avoiding involvement.
Jesus took an entirely different approach. He was all about including people, not excluding them. “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14 msg). Jesus touched lepers and loved foreigners and spent so much time with partygoers that people called him a “lush, a friend of the riffraff” (Matt. 11:19 msg).
Racism couldn’t keep him from the Samaritan woman, demons couldn’t keep him from the demoniac. His Facebook page included the likes of Zacchaeus the Ponzi-meister,
Matthew the IRS agent, and some floozy he met at Simon’s house. Jesus spent thirty-three years walking in the mess of this world. “He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human!” (Phil. 2:6–7 msg).
His example sends this message: no playground displays of superiority. “Don’t call any person common or unfit.”
My friend Roosevelt would agree. He is a leader in our congregation and one of the nicest guys in the history of humanity. He lives next door to a single mom who was cited by their homeowners’ association for an unkempt lawn. A jungle of overgrown bushes and untrimmed trees obscured her house. The association warned her to get her yard cleaned up.
The warning was followed by a police officer’s visit. The officer gave her two weeks to do the work or appear in court. Her yard was a blight on the street, maybe even a health hazard.
Roosevelt, however, paid his neighbor, Terry, a visit. There is always a story behind the door, and he found a sad one. She had just weathered a rough divorce, was recovering from surgery, and was working a night shift at the hospital and extra hours to make ends meet. Her only son was stationed in Iraq. Terry was in survival mode: alone, sick, and exhausted. Lawn care? The least of her concerns.
So Roosevelt recruited several neighbors, and the families spent a Saturday morning getting things in order. They cut shrubs and branches and carted out a dozen bags of leaves.
A few days later Terry sent this message to the board of the homeowners’ association:
I am hoping that you can make the neighborhood aware of what a great group of neighbors I have. These neighbors unselfishly toiled in my yard.
Their actions encouraged and reminded me that there are still some compassionate people residing here, people who care enough to reach out to strangers in their times of need to help lessen their burdens. These residents are to be commended, and I cannot adequately express how grateful I am for their hard work, positive attitude, and enthusiasm. This is all the more amazing considering my grandfather was a rabbi, and I have mezuzah at my front door!
Roosevelt’s response was a Christlike response. Rather than see people as problems, Christ saw them as opportunities.
May we consider a few more Cornelius moments?
You and your buddies enter the cafeteria, carrying your lunch trays. As you take your seat at the table, one of the guys elbows you and says, “Get a load of the new kid.” You have no trouble spotting him. He’s the only student wearing a turban. Your friend makes this wisecrack: “Still wearing his towel from the shower.”
You might have made a joke yourself, except yesterday your pastor shared the story of Peter and Cornelius and read this verse: “God has shown me that he doesn’t think anyone is unclean or unfit” (Acts 10:28 cev).
The guy in the next cubicle wears boots, chews tobacco, and drives a truck with a rifle rack. You wear loafers, eat health food, and drive a hybrid, except on Fridays when you pedal your bike to work. He makes racist jokes. Doesn’t he notice that you are black? He has a Rebel flag as a screen saver. Your great-grandfather was a slave. You’d love to distance yourself from this redneck.
Yet this morning’s Bible study included this challenge: “God has shown me that he doesn’t think anyone is unclean or unfit” (v. 28 cev).
Now what do you do?
One more. You are the superintendent of an orphanage. In dealing with the birth certificates, you come across a troubling word: illegitimate. As you research further, you learn that the word is a permanent label, never to be removed from the certificate.
This is what Edna Gladney discovered. And she couldn’t bear the thought of it. If legitimate means to be legal, lawful, and valid, what does illegitimate mean? Can you imagine living with such a label?
Mrs. Gladney couldn’t. It took her three years, but in 1936 she successfully lobbied the Texas legislature to remove the term from birth documents.
God calls us to change the way we look at people. Not to see them as Gentiles or Jews, insiders or outsiders, liberals or conservatives. Not to label. To label is to libel. “We have stopped evaluating others from a human point of view” (2 Cor. 5:16 nlt).
Let’s view people differently; let’s view them as we do ourselves. Blemished, perhaps. Unfinished, for certain. Yet once rescued and restored, we may shed light, like the two stained-glass windows in my office.
My brother found them on a junkyard heap. Some church had discarded them. Dee, a handy carpenter, reclaimed them. He repainted the chipped wood, repaired the worn frame. He sealed some of the cracks in the colored glass. The windows aren’t perfect. But if suspended where the sun can pass through, they cascade multicolored light into the room.
In our lifetimes you and I are going to come across some discarded people. Tossed out. Sometimes tossed out by a church. And we get to choose. Neglect or rescue? Label them or love them? We know Jesus’ choice. Just look at what he did with us.
You [Jesus] are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased men for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation.
(Revelation 5:9 niv)
Father, you have used all types of people for your holy purposes: prostitutes, murderers, persecutors, liars, thieves, swindlers, the illiterate, the ignorant, the blind, the lame. Grant me the grace to treat everyone I meet as someone for whom Jesus died and rose again. Let there be no unwholesome or unholy distinctions in my eyes and no unworthy favoritism in my actions. Rather, make me into a vessel through whom Jesus shines. In Christ’s name I pray, amen.
Questions for Discussion
1. What was the social pecking order when you were growing up? How about today? Who is at the top, who is at the bottom, and where are you in the order?
2. In what situations do you hear offensive labeling? Have you found yourself inadvertently following suit? How can you be a leader of change in this environment?
3. Recall a time when you were in a situation similar to that of Peter in Acts 10. When have the customs or behaviors of another culture or race felt uncomfortable or even offensive to you? What would be your reaction if God called you to take up the habits and practices of another group so you could reach out to them?
4. Why did Cornelius not look the part even though he was a Christ follower? What surface judgments do people use today to measure spirituality?
5. How could you make time for some marginalized Christians in your life?
Ideas for Action
■ Make a new rule for the next two months: No one sits alone. When you enter any room, resist the urge to sit where you always sit and with the people you always join. First, scan the lunchroom or the boardroom, the stands or the sanctuary, the cafeteria or the theater, and find someone who is sitting alone. Then choose to sit with the marginalized. After two months you might consider making the rule permanent.
■ Attend a worship service in a church with a predominantly different ethnicity or culture than your own. Adapt to that environment—do what they are doing as much as possible. Take note of what you admire about their worship and church life. Consider how it feels to be the odd man out. See what happens when, like Peter, you experience God within a different cultural setting.